Sister Queens by Julia Fox

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, Julia Fox, Ballantine, 2011

3 Stars

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Book – Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile

While Julia Fox’s attention to little details is meticulous, her book Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile is mistitled. It’s a lopsided historical account of Katherine of Aragon, with scant attention placed on her older sister, Juana of Castile.

It read to me like Fox intended to write a biography on Katherine and maybe came up a few pages short, so she crammed in some facts about Juana. They were sisters, both queens, treated cruelly by their husbands and then cast aside in vicious games of politics.

I figure 2/3 of the book pertains to Katherine, 1/6 to notes and pictures and the other 1/6 to Juana’s life. It’s understandable to an extent, as Fox is an accredited expert on Tudor history, and there is so much known about Katherine and her marriage to Henry VII of England, a marriage that ended up fragmenting the Catholic Church and changing the face of Europe forever.

Juana the Who?

Sections pertaining to Juana’s childhood and her marriage to Philp Hapsburg are frustratingly truncated. It’s understandable as Juana spent most of her life—well over 40 years—locked away at Tordesillas, kept prisoner by her beloved Father, then later her son. Not much happens when a person is shut off from the rest of the world.

Fox maintains the now commonly held position that Juana was never insane, and backs this up with accounts from respectable people who came in contact with the supposed Mad Queen.

While I agree that Juana would not be considered legally insane by modern standards, she did exhibit such emotional mood swings which could be diagnosed as bipolar or manic depression. Juana’s documented strange, erratic behavior is downplayed by Fox. Certainly Juana’s treatment was unjust and callous, but there is evidence that, for a while, at least after Philip’s death and then giving birth to her sixth child, Juana was not mentally capable or willing to fulfill her functions as Sovereign Queen. Worse, Fox speculates so often about what Juana felt or did and how we will never know certain truths as hard proof is lacking, that she rarely comes to any definitive conclusion about Juana. We’ll never know anything for sure, Fox frequently states, so then why write about it?

Katherine the Great

In contrast, the parts on Katherine were painstakingly detailed. From Katherine’s grand entrance into London, her marriage to Arthur, then to his younger brother, Henry, each of her pregnancies and miscarriages, the death of her son, how she prudently ruled England while Henry was away at war with France, and then how valiantly she fought to save her marriage from divorce, these facts are all described in a well-annotated, scholarly manner, so replete with minute details of clothing, food and castles that G.R.R. Martin and Bertrice Small would be proud.

Katherine’s letters and actions are documented facts. Her character is fully analyzed, so Katherine becomes a fleshed-out human being before our eyes. There may be a few mysteries about her motives, but there is never a doubt about who she is.

A Lopsided Account

Were this a book just about Katherine, I would have appreciated it much more, rating this at least a 4. I’d like to consider myself an amateur historian when it comes to the Trastamaras & Hapsburg Spaniards and I found the sections on Juana disappointingly sparse in comparison to Katherine’s. The only information new to me about Juana was the number of visits her grandchildren made to her while she was imprisoned (18 in 20 years).

It’s unfortunate that this book is so uneven with much more written about Katherine than Juana. The parallel themes Fox attempts to draw about the sister queens’ fates are not thoroughly convincing. If she had framed her book on a point by point basis, rather than writing this chronologically, perhaps she would have made a more definitive case. As it was, I’m not sure what her ultimate thesis was besides pointing out the obvious tragedies.

4 stars for the Katharine sections + 1.5 stars for Juana’s = 2.75, rounded up to 3 stars overall.

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